Europe’s right can win elections, but can it govern?

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen. (AP Photo)
French far-right leader Marine Le Pen. (AP Photo)

Summary

The new majority may reverse bad climate policies, but immigration could prove intractable.

Congratulations to Europe’s ascendant parties of the right after they leveraged voters’ grievances into a big win in last weekend’s European Parliament elections. Commiserations, too, since now they’re in charge of fixing those grievances.

Citizens in the 27 countries of the European Union went to the polls last week to elect the bloc’s 720-member legislative body. Two issues are widely understood to have driven the outcome: Voters are fed up with the inability of mainstream parties and institutions to get a handle on mass immigration and the social upheaval that comes with it. And they’re wary of paying any more to fund the climate obsessions of Europe’s green left.

Cue a pronounced swing toward the right. The biggest political grouping in the European Parliament remains the European People’s Party—composed of national center-right parties such as Germany’s Christian Democrats and Spain’s Popular Party—now with a larger plurality. Even bigger gains came to parties misleadingly labeled “far right" by much of the media, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France and Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy, which have now achieved a critical mass—131 seats—that will allow them to become properly obstructive in Brussels.

Parties of the left suffered stunning losses. Especially Europe’s Greens, which went splat on contact with the rapidly setting concrete of Europe’s new indifference to climate change. Five years ago, voters cared, deeply and truly, about climate change. Those voters now know what they’ll need to pay to do anything about it—higher energy prices, electric-vehicle mandates, industrial hollowing out—and they’re refusing.

Contrary to the hair-on-fire media alarmism about jackbooted fascists, the main trend to emerge from this election is a reinvigoration of Europe’s center right. This is most obvious in countries such as Germany and Spain, whose mainstream center-right parties fared well.

As for the relative newcomers, most of them owe their gains to their shifts toward the center in recent years. Most no longer oppose using the euro, for instance. Such ideological shifts allow these parties to widen their appeal enough to win.

Which, ultimately, may prove to be their undoing. Having won an election by appealing to a wider coalition of voters, one needs to govern skillfully to hold that coalition together. History suggests that some of the ascendant right’s signature policy promises will be particularly difficult to enact.

Their chances are best on climate policy, both because right-wing parties’ positions here are more popular and because the EU’s baroque governing system provides ready opportunities to effect change. An early opening will be the grand bargaining over appointment of a president for the European Commission, the EU’s bureaucratic apparatus. The president is nominated by the 27 leaders of EU countries but must be confirmed by a parliamentary majority.

Incumbent Ursula von der Leyen five years ago made a series of policy concessions to parties of the left in exchange for their support in parliament. She wants a second five-year term now, and insurgent parties of the right in concert with the centrist EPP bloc have an opening to insist she bow to their own priorities this time. That could include extracting from Ms. von der Leyen or any other candidate a commitment to can the EU’s electric-vehicle mandate or ditch unpopular climate-related agricultural regulations.

Immigration will be the tougher problem. The conceit among the insurgent right is that obvious solutions exist if only Europe’s effete ruling class would act. It’d be a strain to call Europe’s current immigration policies competent but there’s no ready, simple solution to the woes that got right-wing parties in office.

Reducing the number of illegal arrivals is a daunting logistical, fiscal and political task. EU efforts to cope typically run aground as soon as Europeans realize they might need to cede some level of national sovereignty to the EU, such as larger fiscal transfers to border countries or greater harmonization of legal rules surrounding asylum claims. Will Ms. Le Pen ask French taxpayers to write bigger checks to Ms. Meloni to manage migrant inflows in Southern Italy?

As for cultural assimilation of immigrants and their descendants—the insurgent right’s biggest concern, especially regarding Muslims—every proposed solution proves both unworkable and unpopular. Ms. Le Pen hasn’t been able to formulate a way to ban halal butchers (in an attempt to assimilate France’s large Muslim population forcibly) without catching kosher meat in the crossfire. Whether it’s mosque bans or forbidding head scarves, the anti-immigrant right across the bloc struggles to cobble together a majority of public opinion behind any assimilation measure.

Blame the media or left-wing brainwashing or cultural decadence or anything else, a status quo is a status quo for a reason. Citizens and insurgent parties alike may soon confront the possibility that voters themselves—specifically, a mismatch between what they want and what they’re prepared to do to get it—are Europe’s problem. Buckle up.

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